'Dear Congressman' - the most effective way to reach a lawmaker
''Letting local, state, and federal government representatives know how you think about issues, proposed legislation, and existing laws is the right and obligation of every citizen.''
Few people would challenge that statement by Michigan Congressman Robert Carr. Many citizens do, in fact, contact their state and federal representatives.
''But,'' Mr. Carr emphasizes, ''many more citizens should write their lawmakers on state and federal subjects, because the legislation will eventually affect them.''
Representatives do want to hear from the private sector in their communities. ''Most of my colleagues want to accurately represent their constituents,'' says New York Congressman Richard Ottinger.
If you're a person who dashes off a letter to congressmen, perhaps your correspondence technique could improve. If you're not in the habit of writing, with a little know-how you can make your views heard. Consider the following points:
* Use the correct name, title, address, room number, office building, city, state, and ZIP code. The public library and local newspaper are good sources.
* Avoid sending letters to Washington about state issues unless the issues involve federal legislation. Know the names of your congressmen, state representative, and senator. A letter to another legislator won't hurt your cause, but you can be more influential on policymakers in your own district - the people you will vote for or against in the next election.
* State your complaint or support in the first paragraph, mentioning the legislation (bill) number, if available. Simply state whether you are for or against it. Then give clear reasons why and how the legislation affects you and your community. Use a separate paragraph for each reason.
* Research the issue to show you know what you're talking about; then the paragraphs expressing your reasons will come more easily. Avoid copying from newspapers or bulletins what someone else has said. Lawmakers can spot key phrases and paragraphs as originating from special-interest groups, so put your arguments and reasons in your own sincere words. Your personal experiences are the best supporting evidence. You need to show you're an individual and not a committee. Trite, stereotyped phrases and sentences that give the tone of form letters show just the opposite. And of course, don't send mass-produced form letters. Representatives quickly stash these in the wastebasket.
* Use facts (names of people, places) and be specific to show you are informed.
* Write about one issue per letter to give the representative a chance to respond and to record your sentiments on the particular issue. If you believe you need to contact more than one lawmaker (your own US representative and the head of a special committee, for example), write to each personally rather than sending a copy.
* Time your letter for the most influence. If you can find out from a lobbyist on the scene when letters should arrive, your letter to a lawmaker at a crucial moment in the legislative process could help influence a yes or no vote.
* Control your emotions. Be complimentary and courteous but firm if you disagree with the representative's position. Don't threaten your lawmaker by saying you will withdraw your supporting vote. Representatives are keenly aware of this possibility.
* Follow through. If you get no reply, write again, enclosing a photocopy of the letter, and ask why. When you do receive a reply, whether in your favor or not, use the basis of that reply for another letter. Tell your representative why you agree or disagree with the response. You may get a form letter in reply stating that your views will be considered when the legislation receives a vote. Another letter asking the representative's position is appropriate.
Letters take effort. But voters need to support in writing what they believe. The intelligent, efficient way to reach a lawmaker is with the written word.